Random First Thoughts on Nomics


The unassembled puzzle.
Pt. 1. So not too long ago, I was reading an interview with Stuart Kaplan (founder of US GAMES — one of the companies we buy from at the store, makes mostly card games and Tarot decks.) The interviewer asked him what he thought was the most significant thing that had happened in the world of games in his lifetime. He responded fast and short — Magic the Gathering/Wizards of the Coast. That card games and the idea of what gaming is would never be the same after the first Magic card was sold.

Which is pretty much what you’d suspect from the guy with the largest playing card, card game, and Tarot collection in the world.

In truth, Magic would never have existed w/o Gary Gygax and that was pretty clear from all the clever and sweet obits when Gygax died recently. (GG invented Dungeons and Dragons in his dorm room at Harvard.)

I’m going to assume you know the basics of Magic — but the important bits are that the cards basically form the board as you play them — a board of undetermined size and shape. AND, the cards create the rules of the specific hand you are playing as they are played. That is, every time you lay down a card, the process of play and the scope of play changes. Laying down the cards actually builds the game and the gameboard.

Pt. 2 Back in the early 80’s (I am now guessing about 1982-3 — which will be a semi-important date in just a bit,) Nate (very young Nate) got a Ravensburger boardgame called Labyrinth. He liked it so much that we are now on our 3rd copy of the original game, and Ravensburger has put out at least 4 other boardgame versions and a card game.

What you need to know about Labyrinth, if you don’t already, is that the board of the game is made up of tiles (that are part of the maze, if that isn’t obvious) that slide up, down, right and left during play. Tokens move through the maze to get to the exit, to pick up treasures, or whatever goal.

The important thing here is that the board (the maze) changes constantly from first play to last. — kinda like the maze in the 4th Harry Potter movie. The playing field is in constant motion, and it is the players that cause this.

So if you were born after about 1980, this has been true all your life — the board changes, the rules change, the goal of the game changes, the players change, the definition of ‘win” changes (or doesn’t exist), and the tactic and strategies change with every play. This has not always been so. Ask your parents.

Pt. 3  For New Years, Patrice and Stephen brought a card game called FLUXX, and they and Rebecca were very excited for me to learn and play this game.  First of all, it’s a really cute and excellent game and they were right to think I’d enjoy it.

In this game, if you don’t know, there are several types of cards.  There are Keepers — which are objects — that you collect and lay down in front of you on the table.  Like a toaster, or a cookie.

There are Rules — Basic rules, which describe what a player does each turn (take one card, play one card;) and New Rules, which amend or change the rules (take one card, play 3 cards.)

There are instant actions, which you play to change the course of play 1 time, at the time you play it. (Like take one card from each player….)

There are Goals — which state the parameters of Winning. (Toaster + bread = Toast — that is, the player who has both the toaster card and the bread card in front of them WINs and the hand is over.)

The important thing to know here is obvious, and how the game got its name — Fluxx.  Everything about this game is in constant flux.

Pt. 4  Back in 1982, Douglas Hofstadter was writing a column for Scientific American called Metamagical Themas which later became a book of the collected essays — this is the Godel-Escher-Bach guy.  Also wrote The Mind’s I which is about the nature of self)  In other words, this is a fairly big-picture guy who understands the BP though a series of examined details.

Anyway, in 1982, DH had a column with a contributer named Peter Suber, who was working on social and political theory (and who went on the following year to publish a book called The Paradox of Self Amendment), and they published a set of rules for a game, which basically described how players could construct the rules of the game AND THIS CONSTRUCTION PROCESS WAS ACTUALLY THE GAME.  Turns out, what they were describing was congress, and why constructing the rules that determine how play occurs often causes an inescapable paradox/stalemate.

The important thing to know here is that these rules not only describe how play is delayed, halted, or disabled in the political arena, but that they became an actual GAME of Suber’s invention, called NOMIC. (more of a mythic creation, really, since it requires no board, dice, pieces, cards, or anything except a room full of people willing to put themselves through this kind of hell…)  Not likely to be a big seller at Target, but it did fine at Irrellevancies R Us.  And now, all games of this kind can be referred to as nomics.  Fluxx is a nomic.

Pt. 5  Here’s where we get to the biggest piece of “you have to know this before you can know that” — and if you know me already — or Nate, or Jim, or Rebecca, or any of those who have been in our path during the last 18 years — then you probably already know some, if not all, about Opening Boxes.  If you are missing the Opening Boxes string of beads, then this is where you should stop and go to Jim’s and my website, whitlarks.com , and click on the Journal of Human Threshold Systems, and go to the index column on the left side of the page.  Start at the “Intro to Graves & Jung Model” and read down through Level 8.  You can read more if you want, but that’s where you need to be to go on from here.
(We actually put this site out there about 3 years ago for our own reference — and haven’t kept it up to date completely — there’s much more to add to give a complete picture, but this is enough for most purposes….)

So from here on, I’m going to assume that you have at least a beginning knowledge of Graves Theory, and you know what I”m talking about when I say “Opening Boxes.” I started using the term Opening Boxes back about 1991 as I was developing this part of the Graves picture — and I did it in this same format, but with a friend at MIT named Chris Couch (Hi Chris!) — and between us and all the people who have been in on discussions about opening boxes since, the term has moved into common vernacular (I heard it a few weeks ago on the TV show, Bones) — though after hitting the mainstream of the Collective Unconscious, the meme got downgraded to a less complex meaning — as often happens.

So.  From here on, we are out of the realm of events and facts, and into the realm of conjecture — as Dumbledore would say.

So what changed in the world so that Gary Gygax’s D&D could be born and move the idea of “game” from the surface of the table to inside the head?  Or that made a previously solid gameboard start shifting like the sands of the desert?  Or that gave rise to a game like Magic, The Gathering, where the cards themselves actually built the gameboard and the rules, one card at a time?  Or a game like Fluxx where every component of the game construct is constantly in play,

Well, if you actually read the stuff I sent you to, you already know the answer — it was the rise of Graves 7 that happened in the late 60’s/early 70’s.  What is it that 7s do best and love most?


Which is, by the way, what is happening in this set of random thoughts — it is making a much bigger thought out of all the pieces.  Including the pieces provided by contributors that go into this much bigger thought!

What is D&D but an internal picture puzzle where everybody playing provides pieces?  What is Labyrinth but a picture puzzle where everybody playing amends, constructs, and alters the picture?  What is Nomic — that set of rules published in Metamagical Themas — but a ruleset that is being assembled as its reason for existence?  What is Magic, The Gathering, but a picture puzzle of a gameboard (which is also the ruleset) that is assembled, one piece at a time by the players, and then played out to its logical end?  And finally, what is Fluxx, but a game-metaphor for the act of opening boxes?  Each time a new box is opened (a new card is played) the entire world of that game transforms.

All these things are about Graves 7 (and eventually, 8).  All these games are one metaphorical form or another of opening boxes.

And in the same way that there is a liminal werewolf metaphor/story for each threshold between one Graves level and the next (that’s a whole other set of random thoughts that became a much bigger thought — you can take it from there…) — there is also a change in “game theory” it seems, to assist, explain, train, and develop the “what they do best and enjoy most” skill of each Graves up-leveling.

All those new L7s out there, starting in the late 60s and continuing to now, created a set of “games” that let them do what they love most, polish the skills, and stretch their L7 muscles.  And, the truth is, this kind of practice helps them get in fighting trim to do what L8s are going to do — which is open the not-game-metaphor boxes.

And there is one more piece to this puzzle — which takes us back to Stuart Kaplan of US Games.  Prior to the 20th century, “fortune telling” was something done primarily by the “cross my palm with silver” crowd.  It was usually done with a regular deck of playing cards, and practiced by Travelers and Carneys.  Tarot decks have existed since the Renaissance — being an outgrowth of chess. (more on that is out there if you’re interested.  Easy enough to find on your own.)  And most of the tarot decks were done on commission by artists for wealthy families.  It wasn’t until paper, ink, presses, and merchants were commonplace that decks of Tarot cards were available, even to the general upper class except by commission.

And it really wasn’t until Stuart Kaplan that they were common to everybody else.  He began publishing — again, you guessed it — in the sixties.  What he first published were facsimilies, and then redrawn versions of those early decks.  But as artists got hold of the cards, they began to do what artists always do — they introduced their own style, their own medium, their own ideas etc.  And that remained true until  the purpose of fortune telling began to evolve.  There is hardly anyone left that knows tarot cards that actually believes they are somehow magical or made of “psychic” paper.  And there’s hardly anyone left who thinks a tarot reader is “psychic” or magical.  Over the last 40 years, what has happened, thanks to Mr. Kaplan, is that the cards have less often found their way into the hands of hucksters and con-artists, and more often found their way into the hands of L6s and L7s.   And they have become a fairly simple and straightforward way to open boxes, without having the vocabulary to call it “Opening Boxes.”

In the same way that Magic, The Gathering is laying down cards to create the picture-puzzle of a mandala-like transient gameboard — Tarot cards lay down one card at a time to create a picture puzzle image.

And recently, the artists who illustrate and paint the cards have begun to create decks that lend themselves to this idea. Look at the   Transparant Tarot”  for evidence of this.  These clear cards can be laid in the traditional linear way  (sequential), or on top of each other  (simultaneous) — not only altering the content of each card, but building a 3D representation of the puzzle (remember the image of time in what you read about Graves?) which is unique to L6 and

above.  Other artists, like Ciro Marchetti, are creating decks of cards where each card is a single pane, or part of a bigger world made out of the entire deck.

Marchetti’s latest deck, called the  Legacy of the Divine tarot, even has a book available, written by Marchetti, that is a story about the world seen in the cards.

Which, if you don’t know, is how my collection of Tarot decks fits into my life.  And gets us up to now.

Artists of all media tend to either make the transition from one Graves level to the next before the general public (less likely), OR, they tend to create art that is a level ahead of the level where they max, and where the majority of the general public is maxing (more likely.)  I have always thought this was in order to artistically point the way and offer glimpses into the coming level.  However, with all the games listed above, the deeper meaning to their existence seems to be to draw those of a level more completely into the central activity of their own level.  L7 plays Fluxx because it is their “favorite dance.”  It is the dance they enjoy most, that comes most naturally, and it lets them work the muscles required for that dance and keep them in shape — and make them stronger for what’s coming.

When L5 plays Fluxx, it plays for the sheer pleasure of immersing themselves into the task soooo difficult (due to the chaos) that it makes them sweat.  It proves that they are up to the task of busy-busy-busy which is L5’s proudest moment.  Looking busy and appearing able to slay the chaos dragon — in public — is the chest pounding triumph of any L5.  In fact, you may have noticed, that they are experts at creating complex Chaos — just so they can tame it before a paying audience!

When L6 plays Fluxx — it plays because of the democracy of a game that say all rules are possible, all rules are welcome, and all rules are our friends if we can just stay on top of them.

Return to the werewolf stories connected to L7.  At each cusp — each threshold between levels, the story of the werewolf gives us permission to be periodically nostalgic for the level we are leaving — and periodically regretful about the strange and often uncomfortable (or even freightening!) NEW level we are entering.  The new level just doesn’t fit completely when you first try it on.  You have to live in it a while before it stretches in the right spots and wears callouses where they are needed.  And it just takes a while to build the muscles that can support the weight of that furry suit. — so we make games to help build those muscles.

And —

Yep, there’s a tiny bit more.  All those born after the entrance of Dungeons and Dragons, the Metamagical Themas column in Scientific American, and Labyrinth — One of the things the GIANT puzzle (and most obvious one) of the modern era — the internet — has caused is a rise in simulaneous processing.  As opposed to the sequential processing that human beings have done since DAY ONE.  (That would be the original DAY ONE.)

Now, humans are doing what was NEVER DONE BEFORE the modern computer (except maybe by Di Vinci and a couple of other seriously odd-fellows born in the wrong century.)   A great many people born in the last 25-30 years are processing information either simulaneously, or at an unusually fast sequential pace.  That skill is an evolutary leap produced by (or producing) this L7 love of solving complex puzzles and compiling complex (and possibly shifting) assemblages of ideas.

And all these games serve the same purpose at L7 that sport serves at L3 and debate serves at L4 etc.  It hones the skills necessary to do our work in the “real” world.  Memory, the abilitiy to keep all the balls in the air , finding the relationships between hundreds of associated (and not associated) elements in milliseconds (or faster) — even when the elements are constantly in flux and flow.

This new kind of reasoning built on simultaneous processing, is the step beyond inductive and deductive reasoning.  As good as Sherlock Holmes was — this is something beyond the L5 processing of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, or the L6 processing of the Sherlock Holmes of They Might Be Giants. The leap into simultaneous processing’s reasoning gives us Hugo Cabret and the Brothers Eppes from NUMB3RS — not to mention Hofstadter, Suber, and all those clever nomics game-makers.

So here is the homework.  Go get a copy of Fluxx or whatever nomics game you know of and play.  And play and play and play.  And pay attention to whether you are getting stronger and more skilled.  Notice, measure, quantify if you can — is this building new skillsets?  Is this stretching your werewolf-fursuit so it fits more comfortably?   Are you buffing up your L7?  Are you moving from L6 into L7, if L6 is where you are maxing right now?  Pay attention.  Notice.  Write it down.  Say it out loud — or at least say it in writing where we all can read it.


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